A fun thought experiment about how life might have evolved differently on another planet (with some philosophical implications for our own planet).
Solipsylvania is the name of a planet, and of the single, immortal, conscious, intelligent, organism that evolved on that planet. For when life evolved on this planet, it’s cells reproduced, recycled, mutated, adapted, evolved, and specialized – but they remained part of one single organism. It started out like a growing algal bloom, then developed characteristics like moss or grass, and eventually like a forest. It developed one massive, interconnected, neural network. It developed a variety of senses: perception of chemicals in it’s environment, perception of various frequencies of electro-magnetic radiation, sensitivity to vibrations in the atmosphere. It developed preferences for things that contributed to it’s thriving and growth, and these preferences evolved into feelings of pleasure and joy and a sense of aesthetics: of beauty and wonder. It developed an awareness of time and the ability to predict, and plan, and imagine, and create. It developed the ability to manipulate elements in its environment: to create both utilitarian and artistic artifacts. It began to explore, and analyze, and discover, and understand it’s environment and itself. It created an internal semantic language of thought, although this was never expressed audibly or visually. It discovered the patterns of mathematics. It observed and began to understand chemistry, its own biology, physics, astronomy. It even learned to modify its own biological structures and further enhanced its own resilience and intelligence.
Now continue the thought experiment:
Could such an evolutionary process be possible? Could there be life without death? Evolution without competition?
Could / Would ‘Solip’ (for short) experience conflict? Probably some competition between its parts, probably some difference of opinion and perspective within its large neural network… but would these all be overcome by the underlying reality – that we’re all part of one body?
How could Solip develop self-awareness? What would that self-awareness feel like? Our own sense of self-awareness evolved in the context of being partially independent but intensely interdependent social organisms, surviving in complex relationships of competition and collaboration. Solip may have discovered that it was somehow separate from the non-living planet on which it lived and from which it drew nutrients, and separate from the vast space around it from which it drew energy, but it is hard to imagine what that self-awareness would be like.
Would Solip discover / encounter / develop an ethical sensitivity or any conception of good and evil? (Most of our ethical categories would scarcely apply: empathy, love, justice, kindness, cruelty, generosity etc. all seem to require multiplicity of consciousness and scarcity)
Solip would experience pain and suffering: asteroid strikes, droughts, etc. – but if it survived for billions of years, it presumably developed resilience and the ability to heal.
Would Solip’s intelligence and consciousness develop much more rapidly given its immortality and unified memory? There would be no need to wait for some intelligent organisms to figure out ways to share and store ideas. On the other hand, maybe the lack of competition would slow the drive toward increasing complexity and intelligence.
Would Solip feel lonely, or even be able to conceive of the idea of other intelligent life? Would it look for a way to communicate? Could it conceive of the idea of communication?
Would Solip encounter God? A sense of a creator with a divine purpose? I’m sure God would love Solip – would Solip return that love? How would Solip conceive of love? Would Solip need to go through some process of fall and redemption? Of brokenness and healing? Of alienation and reconciliation?
Would Solip tell itself stories? Would it develop a narrative framework to give meaning and purpose and direction to its life?
Religion evolved on Earth in the context of our own evolutionary journey that included a lot of competition, suffering, and death; but also a lot of collaboration, healing, and new life. Jesus, and other spiritually sensitive souls, call us to leave behind separateness, selfishness, tribalism, and fear of death and embrace interdependence, love, harmony, and resurrection.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin proposed that life on earth and humanity’s collective consciousness are evolving toward something like a single planetary organism. After a long process of diversification, we are becoming increasingly aware that we are deeply interconnected. Globalization is resulting in networks of trade and communication that increasingly resemble a giant neural network and circulation system.
Our planet may be approaching a golden age in which we eradicate extreme poverty and war OR we may have caused an unstoppable and unprecedented ecological catastrophe and collapse of civilization OR something in between. It is more critical than ever that we view ourselves as deeply interconnected with all of humanity and with our fragile shared planet. While there is a growing awareness of our shared humanity there are also alarming backlashes of ‘tribalism’ and xenophobia. Let’s hope that we find away to come together as a global family and live in sustainable harmony with our planet.
Pando – the clonal aspen forest in Utah that is probably Earth’s most massive and oldest living organism.
Planetary – a moving documentary about our social, spiritual, ecological need to see ourselves as one with all humanity and our planet.
From Bacteria to Bach by Daniel Dennet – a fascinating perspective on the evolution of life, consciousness, and specifically human consciousness.